February 18, 2019 § 2 Comments
This came through my feed on Facebook a few days ago. It’s worth re-posting and it’s worth a deeper commentary. The United States was founded upon slavery. Fact. The Founding Fathers included slave owners. Face. The Founding Fathers didn’t deal with slavery in the Constitution. Fact. The Civil War happened because the South seceded over slavery. Fact. The Southern response to Emancipation was Black Codes, the Ku Klux Klan and segregation. Fact. Desegregation only happened because of the intervention of the Supreme Court. Fact.
But. None of this is a Southern thing. Slavery initially existed in the North as well. But even after the North banned slavery, it benefited from slavery. The American industrial revolution began in Lowell, MA, due to the easy availability of Southern cotton. The North got wealthy, in other words, on the backs of Southern slaves. The North countenanced slavery.
After the Civil War, the North countenanced segregation. The second Ku Klux Klan emerged in Atlanta, true, but it operated all over the country. And, following Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that desegregated schools, the North was affected, most notably during the Boston Busing Crisis in the 1970s.
But even with the official end of desegregation with Brown v. Board, it’s not like segregation went away. Schools today remain very segregated across the United States due to the outcomes of racism, poverty and housing choices. In fact, one of the outcomes of the Boston Busing Crisis. The busing ‘experiment’ in Boston ended in 1988, by which time the Boston school district had shrunk from 100,000 students to only 57,000. Only 15% of those students were white. As of 2008, Boston’s public schools were 76% African American and Hispanic, and only 14% white. Meanwhile, Boston’s white, non-Hispanic population in 2000 was 55% white. White Bostonians pulled their children out of the city’s public schools and either enrolled them in private schools, or moved to the white suburbs.
As for housing, the Washington Post found last year, the United States is a more diverse nation than ever here in the early 21st century, but its cities remain segregated. Historian Richard Rothstein has found that the segregation of American cities was not by accident.
Then there’s the question of redlining, which was officially banned with the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But all that means is that banks and financial institutions have become more clever at discriminating against African Americans and other minorities. And more to the point, those areas of American cities that were redlined when this was legal in the 1930s continue to suffer from the same prejudices today.
Slavery and the complete and utter failure of Reconstruction after the Civil War means that African Americans in the United States today live in the long shadow of slavery and institutionalized racism. So, while the meme above is correct that it was only in 1954 that segregation is outlawed, I would be a lot more hesitant about the green light African Americans have there from 1954 onwards.
December 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
Twenty-nine years ago today, a violent misogynist marched into the École Polytechnique in Montréal, separated the men from the women and gunned down fourteen women. Another fourteen were wounded. He then killed himself. In his suicide note, he blamed feminists for ruining his life. He claimed that feminists attempted to play the advantages of being women whilst also seeking to claim advantages that belong to men. He had a list of nineteen prominent women in Québec whom he considered to be feminists and whom he wished dead.
The Montréal Massacre shocked a nation. I was sixteen and living at the other end of the country, in the suburbs of Vancouver. This felt a little more real for me because I am from Montréal. My mother, also a montréalaise, was ashen-faced and shocked watching the news, crying. At school the next day at school, a Thursday, the shock was real and palpable. Nearly all of us felt it. Nearly all of us were sickened. Some were crying in the hallways. Some looked like zombies. We talked about this incessantly. We didn’t understand. We didn’t understand such violent misogyny.
I remain shocked by this event even today. What I didn’t know or understand about violent misogyny as a teenager I now do. I am a professor myself and teach my students about misogyny. And violent misogyny. I often talk about the Montréal Massacre, even to American students. In 1989 I was shocked by the irrational hatred of men towards women. In 2018, I am still shocked, but more jaded, I know it’s there and and am not all that surprised when it plays out.
In 2017, my wife and I went to the Women’s March in Nashville, TN. A lot of the older women protesting, the women of my mother’s generation, were carrying signs saying ‘I Can’t Believe I’m Still Protesting This Shit.’ They were right. This is the same shit.
Every 6 December in Canada, we wring our hands and ask how and why did this happen? But we haven’t done much to make it so that this cannot happen again. In the United Staes, we have done even less to make women safe. This is just immoral and wrong.
The worst part is that nearly all of us know the killer’s name. I refuse to utter it, I refuse to use it. To do so gives him infamy, it gives him something he does not deserve. Instead, I am always saddened that we cannot recite the names of the dead. Here is a list of the women he killed that day in 1989:
- Genviève Bergeron, 21
- Hélène Colgan, 23
- Nathalie Croteau, 23
- Barbara Daigneault, 22
- Anne-Marie Edward, 21
- Maud Haviernick, 29
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewic, 31
- Maryse Laganière, 25
- Maryse Leclair, 23
- Anne-Marie Lemay, 22
- Sonia Pelletier, 28
- Michèle Richard, 21
- Annie Saint-Arneault, 23
- Annie Turcotte, 21
It saddens me to think that these fourteen women died because one immature little man decided they’d ruined his life by trying to gain an education. The futures they didn’t get to have because of one violent misogynist with a gun depresses me. And every 6 December, I stop and think about this. I pay tribute to these women. And I think about how I can make a difference in my own world to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
November 15, 2018 § 2 Comments
Last week I mentioned the haunting and beautiful Irish Famine memorial carved from bog wood by the artist Kieran Tuohy.
I spend a lot of time thinking about and, ultimately, teaching Famine memorials in both Irish and Public history classes. For the most part, Famine memorials are similar to Tuohy’s sculpture, though perhaps not as haunting. They show desperate, emaciated figures carrying their worldly goods in their arms and trying to get to the emigrant ships leaving from the quay in Dublin, Derry, Cork, etc. The Dublin memorial is perhaps the most famous.
The Irish memorials tend to reflect stories of leaving, the desperate emigrants heading to the so-called New World. Death is secondary to these narratives, though just as many people died as emigrated due to the Famine. Take, for example, my favourite memorial on Murrisk, Co. Mayo. This one depicts a coffin ship, though unlike many other monuments, it reflects death, as skeletons can be found aboard the coffin ship. In fact, if you look carefully at this image, you can see that the netting is actually a chain of skeletons, depicting the desperate refugees who died aboard these ships.
The stories told by Famine memorials in North America differ, however. They offer a solemn view of the refugees arriving here, sometimes acknowledging the arduous journey and the pitiful conditions in Ireland. But they offer a glimpse of what is to come. Perhaps none more so than the Boston Famine Memorial.
The Boston Famine Memorial is located along the Freedom Trail in Boston, at the corner of Washington and School streets downtown. Like most Famine memorials around the world, it dates from the era of the 150th anniversary of the Famine in the late 1990s. The Boston memorial was unveiled in 1998. It is not a universally popular one, for perhaps obvious reasons, and attracts a great deal of mocking. It’s got to the point that now there are signs surrounding the memorial asking visitors to be respectful.
It is comprised to two free-standing sculptures. The first shows the typical, desperate, starving, wraith-like Famine refugees. The man is desperate and cannot even lift his head, whilst his wife begs God for sustenance as her child leans towards her for comfort.
But it’s the second sculpture that is problematic. This one shows the same family, safe in America, happy and healthy. In other words, we get the triumphalist American Dream. But, there are a few gaps here. First, perhaps the obvious gap, the nativist resistance the Irish found in the United States. And perhaps more to the point, whereas the man is dressed like a worker from the late 19th/early 20th century (even then, this is 50-60 years after the Famine, the woman is dressed as if it’s the mid-20th century, so 100 years later.
Certainly, the Irish made it in the United States. The Irish became American, essentially, and assimilated into the body politic of the nation. But this was not instantaneous. It took a generation or two. It is worth noting that the first Irish president was also the first Catholic president, and that was still 115 years after the start of the Famine, with John Fitzgerald Kennedy being elected in 1960. Irish assimilation in the US was not easy, in other words.
And then there’s the triumphalism of the American Dream which, in reality, is not all that accessible for immigrants in the United States, whether they were the refugees of the Famine 170 years ago or they are from El Salvador today. And this is perhaps something unintended by the Boston memorial, given the time lapse between the Famine refugees and the successful, American family.
November 9, 2018 § 1 Comment
A little while ago, I got to visit Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Qunnipiac University in Hamden, CT. My wife’s Aunt Claire lived in Hamden, and as a good Irish American woman, she loved this museum and it is one of my great regrets that I did not get to the museum with her before she died last spring. May she rest in peace.
I was on a tour at the museum, despite my deep knowledge of Irish history, the Famine, and the diaspora, to say nothing of the practice of museums in general. I kind of regretted this. Our experiences of museums and their collections are mediated by the docent. And in some cases, this can work really well, we get docents who are knowledgeable and personable and they make us think about the artefacts, collections, exhibits in ways we would not otherwise. In sbort, the docent, as Franklin Vangone and Deborah Ryan note in their Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, ‘can make or break the visitor experience.’ Vangone and Ryan advocate a more personable approach to docent-led tours, one that lets the experience of the docent in the museum, come through. This is to avoid rote-memorization. They also advocate a non-linear interpretation (amongst other innovative measures) of the museum, one that can account for multiple interpretations and stories simultaneously.
The other major problem with docent-led museum tours is that they are telling us, the visitors, a pre-determined, pre-packaged nodes of information. But, of course, we, the visiting public, go to museums to seek out our own experiences of the artefacts, the history, etc. Indeed, when my students write museum reviews, part of their remit is to both cast a critical eye on the museum, the structure of the tour, the artefacts of the tour, the story being communicated, and so on. But they are also supposed compare their own experiences, what they looked for, what they took away, with the pre-packaged history they consumed at the same time.
People tend to either love or hate docent-led tours. I’m more ambivalent. Sometimes they’re fantastic. Other times, they leave a lot to be desired. My visit to Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum was the latter experience. The thing was, my docent clearly approached his job in a non-linear, personable manner. He told stories of his involvement, his approach, and why he loved doing this. He was also really good with a lot of his audience, composed of university student. He made eye contact, he had a presence. What he did not have, though, was pitch modulation in his voice. He talked in a dull monotone. And he very clearly needed to keep authority on his side of the tour, to the point where he was patronizing and insulting in taking questions or comments. And, with a group of undergraduate students (not mine, for the record), this immediately shuts down a dialogue, though it was also clear that my docent did not want a dialogue.
As a way of a comparison, my wife was on another tour at the same time, with another docent. My docent was a late middle-aged man, and hers was a similarly aged woman. Both docents were of Irish heritage, of course. But her docent was lively, had both a modulated voice and was willing to take questions and different interpretations of events and items. I was jealous.
So clearly, at least on this day, one’s experience with the museum was determined by which docent one ended with.
The museum itself holds so much promise. The building housing the museum, purpose-built, resembles an Irish Work House from the mid-19th century. The work houses were where (some) of the starving Irish peasantry were sent. There, they met with disgusting, vile, unsanitary conditions and disease preyed upon the inmates.
The Famine Museum, however, is built of much higher quality materials. And, unlike a fetid mid-19th century Irish Work House, is shiny and comfortable, of course. The visitor experience begins with a short documentary where the background of the Famine is delivered. I found this bizarre.
One has to also presume that the majority of people who seek out this museum are already familiar with the concept of the Famine. I’m not sure a 10-minute video is really going to do much to aid in people’s understanding of the calamity (as a reminder: 1845-52; potato blight; Irish peasants lived on potatoes; grain and meat was still shipped out of Ireland to Britain whilst the peasants starved; British response wholly and completely inadequate; 1.5 million or so die; 1.5 million or so emigrate; Ireland hasn’t really recovered yet). But what did surprise me was that the narrative of the documentary termed this a genocide.
I don’t disagree. As the Irish nationalist and Young Ireland leader John Mitchel said in 1846, ‘The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.’ It wasn’t just that the British response was inadequate, it was purposefully so and the words of Charles Trevelyan, the Under-Secretary of the Treasury was unabashed in his delight at the suffering in Ireland, a chance to remake the country, he thought.
But what struck me was that when I was reading for my comprehensive exams fifteen years ago, the idea of the Famine as a genocide was not one that was accepted by academic historians, for the most part. Since the early 00s, however, the idea has become more and more accepted amongst Irish history scholars and now, it appears we can indeed term the Famine what it was, a genocide, caused by the massively inadequate response of the government.
And remember, that ‘British’ government was not actually supposed to be British. The country was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Thus, Ireland was part and parcel of the wealthiest nation in the world in the mid-19th century.
An example of the perfidy of the government: when the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire pledged to donate £10,000 for relief for the Irish peasantry, Queen Victoria asked him to cut reduce his donation by 90%, to £1,000, as she herself had only pledged £2,000. And then there’s Trevelyan. He termed the Famine an ‘effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.’ But he wasn’t done, he also stated that ‘[t]he real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.’ When I teach the Famine in Irish history, my students are always flabbergasted by this to the point that more than one has asked me if I made it up. I wish.
At any rate, from the downstairs, we went upstairs and began with one of the most stunning Famine sculptures I’ve ever seen. Most Famine sculptures are haunting to begin with, wraiths of humans staggering to the docks of the River Liffey in Dublin. Or to the Foyle in Derry. But Kieran Tuohy‘s work, carved out of bog wood, defies easy description. This is the centrepiece of the museum. It still haunts me. A family of 6, victims of the Famine. Here, our docent was magnificent, I have to say, as he encouraged us to look closer. He began with the infant in the mother’s arms. He pointed to the way she was holding the infant, how the infant’s body looked.
Was the baby dead? The rest of the figures are lean and gaunt, dirty hair hanging down, vacant expression on the faces. And then as one scans downward, there are no feet. These are spectral figures, wraiths, ghosts. They are the dead of the Famine. The dead of our ancestors, essentially.
But this is kind of it. The museum is the world’s largest collection of Great Hunger-related art. The unfortunate thing, though, is very little of it is on display. In fact, almost none of it is on display. On the day we visit, there is an exhibit about the American Civil War. The Famine is central to the story of the Irish diaspora, especially as it relates to the United States. For most of us of Irish ancestry (ok, fine, I’m Irish Canadian, but part of my family actually emigrated to New York before heading north), our ancestors initially came here during the Famine. And the sons (and grandsons) of Erin who suited up for the Union and the Confederacy were in America precisely due to the Famine.
While the massive bulk of Irishmen who fought in the Civil War fought for the Union (around 160,000), some 20,000 Irishmen fought for the Confederacy. This is kind of one of the dirty secrets of the Irish diaspora. And one that is conveniently papered over most of the time. To be fair, our docent did note that the Irish also fought for the Confederacy, but they weren’t the focus of the exhibit.
Either way. The Civil War. I can’t even begin to count the places I could go to find images of the Civil War in this country, and finding this war inside a museum ostensibly dedicated to the Famine was disappointing, to say the least.
And so I was left with the remainder of the permanent exhibitions, which focus on the American response to the Famine. And a feeling that this is the most poorly-named museum I have ever visited; it should not be called Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, but The Museum of the Irish Famine in America. Aside from Tuohy’s sculpture and a few other pieces, there was nothing about Ireland to be found. This was the story of the Irish in America.
And then there was the thing I found most fascinating. Our docent told us the origin story of the museum. But the interesting thing was that after a slight mention of a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s, he moved onto the (much too long) story of how the museum came to be over the next fifteen years or so. And he made no mention of why there was a revival of interest in the Famine in the late 1990s in the first place.
1997 was the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, generally regarded as the worst year of the Famine. And this was a chance for the Irish, and the diaspora, to re-think the Famine, its causes and meanings, and its consequences. It led to an explosion of academic scholarship, popular histories, documentaries, and public art attempting to reckon with the Famine.
And it even gave then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair a chance for a mealy-mouthed acknowledgement of the role of the British in the Famine, skirting the fine line of apologizing. That Blair couldn’t even be arsed enough to deliver the short lines himself, or have Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II (the great-great-grandaughter of Queen Victoria) do it speaks volumes. Instead, an Irish actor recited the lines at a festival in Cork.
At any rate, none of this is part of the narrative of the museum, instead the narrative of the Great Men who built it is the central message. So we get the story of more Great White Men and their wonderful work in doing Great Things.
Anyone who knows me that I don’t generally like museums all that much. The ones I have visited and truly enjoyed number in the single digits. There is a reason I am a big fan of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. The lessons of it can be applied to larger institutions, of course. But rarely am I as disappointed by a museum as I was by Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, from the docent-led experience to the exhibits.
July 30, 2018 § 2 Comments
In this month’s issue of Foreign Affairs, there is a provocative essay from Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Entitled, ‘The Myth of the Liberal Order: From Historical Accident to Conventional Wisdom,’ Allison provides a much needed corrective to the history of American foreign policy since the Second World War.
Allison argues, correctly, that American foreign policy was never about maintaining a liberal world order. Rather, she argues, the world as we know it globally arose out of the Cold War, a bipolar world where the United States and its allies confronted the Soviet Union and its allies in a battle of the hearts and minds of the global populace. In essence, the two core belligerent nations cancelled each other out in terms of nuclear arms, so they were left to forge and uneasy co-existence. And then, the USSR collapsed in 1991 and, the US was victorious in the Cold War. And, of course, Francis Fukuyama made his now infamous, laughable, and ridiculous claim:
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.
How Fukuyama has any credibility after this colossal statement of Western hubris is beyond me.
Anyway, Allison notes that aftermath of this particular moment in time was that the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists made common cause and managed to convince both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush that the best way to spread the gospel of capitalism and liberal democracy was by dropping bombs. Only during the Bush II era did the idea of liberal democracy get tied up with American foreign policy, and here Allison quotes former National Security Advisor (and later Secretary of State), Condoleeza Rice, speaking of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: ‘Iraq and Afghanistan are vanguards of this effort to spread democracy and tolerance and freedom throughout the Greater Middle East.’
Thus, we had a unipolar world, and now, with the resurgence of a belligerent Russia and a growing China, we are in a multi-polar world. And then she goes onto note larger American problems centring around democracy at home.
But what struck me about her argument was where she lays out her argument about the bipolar Cold War world, she notes that ‘the United States and its allies had just fought against Nazi Germany.’ but that the burgeoning Cold War with the USSR required new tactics.
The United States and its allies. There are several ways that this is problematic. The first is that the main Allied powers of the Second World War were the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union. I don’t count France here in that it fell in 1940 and whilst Free French troops and the French Résistance were central to the Allied cause, they were not represented by a government in Paris. But those Big 3 of the US, UK, and the USSR were worth the equal billing. The UK held on and maintained a free Europe from the 1940 until the Americans got going on the Western front in 1942. And British troops (to say nothing of the Empire and Commonwealth) were central to the ultimate victory.
And then there’s the USSR. The Soviets were absolutely and essentially central to the Allied cause in World War II. It was the Soviets that took the brunt of Hitler’s fury on the Eastern front and absorbed the invading Nazi forces before expelling them, absorbing essential German attention as the US and UK dithered about opening a Western front, something that didn’t happen until 1944. And then the USSR, all by itself, defeated the Nazis on the Eastern front and ‘liberated’ the Eastern European nations before closing in on Germany and Berlin itself.
In the US, Americans like to pronounce themselves as ‘Back To Back World War Champs,’ as the t-shirt says. This is bunk. The USSR did more to win World War II in Europe than any other nation, including the United States.
Allison’s argument is made even more peculiar given that she is talking about the outbreak of the Cold War here. She makes no mention of the fact that the United States’ allies in the Second World War included the Soviet Union. Hell, Time magazine even called Josef Stalin its 1943 Man of the Year. That part of the story is essential to understanding the outbreak of the Cold War, the hostility that was festering between the USSR on one side and the US and UK on the other was an important and central story to the last years of World War II.
Thus, better argued, Allison could’ve, and should’ve, argued that in the immediate post-World War II era, c. 1947-48, that the United States was fatigued from World War II, where the Allies, of which it was one, along with the Soviet Union, defeated German Nazism. To write it differently is to elide an important part of history and the Second World War. And frankly, Allison should know better.